TCS Daily

Turning 'Unknown' Into 'Unknowable'

By Robert McHenry - August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

My high school chemistry teacher posed the following problem to the class: If a 50-pound block of pure iron were to oxidize completely, how much would the resulting rust weigh? After allowing us to ponder the question for a bit, he worked out the answer on the blackboard as a demonstration. His answer was 35 pounds.

I raised my hand and asked whether the addition of some amount of oxygen to the iron wouldn't result in something more than the original 50 pounds. The teacher was firm. He had worked the problem, and there was the answer. End of discussion.

Now, granted, this was a very long time ago -- I needn't say just how long, but Sputnik was a fresh memory, and the radio was playing "The Twist," "Chain Gang," and "Walk, Don't Run"; nonetheless, the arithmetic of simple chemical combinations, to say nothing of the law of conservation of mass, had been pretty well established since the 18th century.

Flash forward a few decades, and my eighth-grader son tells me he must enter the school science fair. "Aha! A teaching moment!" I naively think to myself. I propose that we duplicate Galileo's rolling-ball-on-an-inclined-plane experiment. Our hypothesis will be that the ball will accelerate linearly over time. We build a simple apparatus, run a hundred trials, and plot our data. It looks as though our hypothesis is wrong, and as a conclusion we propose a new hypothesis, that the ball accelerates as the square of the time. Just a guess, you understand.

Comes the science fair. The judges, comprising the science faculty of the junior high school, are puzzled by our project. The presentation seems OK, but we failed to follow a basic rule of science projects: You are supposed to prove your hypothesis, not disprove it.

I wander around the fair looking at other projects. Many seem to me to be craft projects, perhaps something salvaged from a Cub Scout program. One apparently takes as its hypothesis "If you correctly connect a doorbell, a battery, and a pushbutton switch, and then push the button, the bell will ring." I try it, and it does. QED. Science.

Doubtless there are better schools and better teachers, but I'm persuaded that my two experiences are fairly representative of the general run. I might mention that my wife and I had moved our family in order to take advantage of the reportedly "superior" schools our children attended. I emerged, and forty years later my children emerged, from secondary school having briefly memorized the names of the principal parts of a flowering plant and the like but with no conception of what science is. What little I knew I had learned on the side, from Robert Heinlein.

So it is that I have some sympathy for President Bush. Despite attending some pretty good schools, he evidently was not taught science in any meaningful way. On the other hand, he's had ample time to supply the defect in his education. But it is a rule of human behavior that we supply only those defects that we recognize and feel to be such. The President, like all of us, has attended to some defects and left others alone.

One of the defects of democracy is that we usually have quite ordinary persons as our leaders. Sometimes this doesn't matter; their particular defects don't bear upon public affairs, or the times are sufficiently placid that it just doesn't matter that they drink, or play too much poker, or cultivate friends of doubtful character, or whatever.

These are not such times. The President's ignorance of science might have remained a private matter, but he chose to speak on the subject of evolution and "intelligent design." This is a great pity.

Science -- from the loftiest of theorizing (like that of Einstein or, oh, Darwin) through the conducting of painstakingly difficult experiments to the application of new knowledge to the improvement of human life -- science, I say, is the chief engine of our society. The great bulk of business entrepreneurs so celebrated in certain circles as the movers and shakers have made their marks by exploiting the knowledge gained by scientists.

Even its opponents grant the prestige and accomplishments of science by pretending to do science themselves, whether in the form of "e-meters" that turn galvanic skin responses into signs of mystic energy flows in the body or in that of ID, which artfully turns "unknown" into "unknowable" in a flourish of bad math and illogic.

It is the case that some people don't like where the engine is taking us, indeed, don't want to go anywhere at all. History affords examples of such people and offers a proper model: the Amish. They made their decision in the 17th century to get off the train, and they have lived peaceably ever since, surrounded but largely unaffected by the Industrial Revolution and all that has followed. Unfortunately, our present-day reluctant passengers seem not to want simply off the train. They want the train to stop and for the rest of us to accept their terms. If President Bush has not taken quite so radical a position, he has certainly decided to take a turn walking down the tracks in front of the train, waving a little red flag.

Here is where we must rely on the strength of democracy. A minority, however vocal, cannot impose its will on the rest of us if we decline to permit it. Not even if the President seems to side with them; he is, after all, merely the first among equals, and he will not own that flag much longer.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclopædia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004).


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